Life in New York after Hurricane Sandy

Satellite imagery demonstrating the core of th...
Satellite imagery demonstrating the core of the New York City Metropolitan Area. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Welcome to an 18th century world.

One without electricity.

One in which –– like rural villagers shoving and pushing to reach a communal well for water –- strangers cluster around an extension cord snaking out of someone’s house who does have power. Every open public library is now a refugee camp, open early and open late, with every table and corner jammed with people clicking away on their laptops, notebooks and cell phones in a frenzy of collective, relieved connectivity.

I sit down this morning at the library, whose small parking lot is jammed as soon as it opens,  and the gray-haired bearded guy beside me is the same guy sitting at the other end of the table last night. I move to another spot and see a neighbor, a retired woman on my apartment floor, who has no power. Her neighbor across the hall does. The person below her has none.

It makes no sense.

And Americans are big on individual freedoms, not suddenly enforced intimacy or inter-reliance.

The world has changed and we’re not ready for it.

Today, one-third of the American workforce does not have an office, cubicle, staff job or steady paycheck. Many of us are now – willingly or not – entrepreneurs and freelancers, temps and contract workers. Like many others in today’s shaky economy, without access to power and Wi-Fi, I can’t earn a living.

Most of us, certainly in urban areas, no longer have kerosene or oil lanterns at home or fireplaces on which to cook or gain light and heat. If you do not have a backyard or firepit or grill, and can’t cook outdoors, you’re toast. People who rely on medications that need refrigeration are endangered.

Here, we live in cities and suburbs designed for automobile transportation — crippled without ready access to gasoline, oil and electricity. You can’t gas your car or bus if the gas station has no electric power, so there are now long line-ups at the few stations that are able to stay open.

It was reported yesterday that two children, ages two and four, were swept out of their mother’s arms during the storm, their bodies found in a marsh. Bangladesh? Somewhere in Africa?

 Staten Island, one of New York City’s five boroughs.

A politician wept as she heard the desperate pleas of victims there shouting: “Where is FEMA? Where’s the Red Cross?” The Red Cross has already received $11 million in donations to help Sandy’s victims.

In the 18th century world, you rise when you once again have natural light and it’s safe enough to venture outside. You go to sleep earlier, having dined (if you can) and read by candlelight. Like some earlier ancestor did, I placed tall candles in front of a mirror, to double and reflect their glow.

There is a generator – thankfully very much 21st century – grinding away below my apartment window. It gives our 100-apartment, six-story building enough power to use our elevators, offer heat and illuminate our long hallways. Luckily, our kitchen was one working outlet and we have a gas stove, so we can cook. We also, now, have heat; in former power outages, becoming “normal” here, we fled the freezing temperatures of February for a local hotel. No one repaid us the cost of two nights there.

We paid $80,000 to buy the generator last year, a cost every resident here is sharing.

The storm’s aftermath – scarcity, fear and frustration — naturally, brings out the best and worst in people. There are fist-fights, already, at gas stations because it gas is now a more difficult commodity to obtain and has suddenly jumped again in price as damaged oil refineries shut down. Other people are sharing their homes, food, shelter and kitchens with one another.

A six-outlet power strip is de facto helfpul. (I brought mine to the library.)

One immediately sees the divide between those with electric power – literally, the powerful – and those without. I was able to go to my regular salon and get a manicure this morning and enjoy an important business lunch at a local restaurant, depriving the original spot we’d originally chosen because – right beside the Hudson River –– they’re closed right now.

I’m lucky that my husband, Jose, is a former news photographer who has survived multiple hurricanes for work. He knew what to do. It was he who filled the car with gas (many stations now have no power, creating long lines at the two local ones that have it) and put it into the garage; bought dozens of bottles of water; stocked the fridge and freezer, lined the balcony door with plastic and towels in case it flooded or the glass shattered. (Neither happened.) He’s been in a hotel all week across from his office at The New York Times, working double shifts for colleagues who cannot get to work with most of the subway so badly damaged.

I toured our town yesterday, gasping in dismay at the shattered ancient trees, the smashed wooden and metal fences beneath them. A cabbie tells me the Hudson River rose so high that it has damaged the computers in the police station – which sits a good half-mile from the river’s edge.

 In the town just north of us, Ossining, a 40-foot sailboat sits on the train tracks where the commuter train normally ferries workers into Manhattan.

I was in Minneapolis, giving a speech to retail students and retailers at the University of Minnesota about my book Malled, when the storm hit New York. I never turned on the radio or television – but read Facebook – where my friends in New York and New Jersey posted photos and updates that told me everything I wanted to know.

The number of dead remains fairly low, now at 38, but some of these are tragic – like the person who stepped into water that held a loose electrical cable.

Jose will be home tomorrow, now that the trains are running north to our suburbs again.

Some people are calling Sandy the “storm of the century.”

I doubt it. We’re only 12 years into this century and, given the tremendous violence of weather patterns here in the past few years – drought, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, forest fires – I think this is our new normal.

We have no money for it. We have no infrastructure for it. We have no offices or homes or modes of transportation – horses? carts? canoes? – built for it. Doctors no longer make house calls.

We have no idea, or methods for, how to bathe and cook or wash clothes or offer medical care without electricity; Bellevue Hospital, a major downtown Manhattan facility, shut down and had to transfer all its patients.

From The New York Times:

Bellevue Hospital Center, New York City’s flagship public hospital and the premier trauma center in Manhattan, shut down Wednesday after fuel pumps for its backup power generators failed, and it worked into the night to evacuate the 300 patients left in its darkened building. There were 725 patients there when Hurricane Sandy hit.

At a news conference Wednesday night, Alan Aviles, the president of the Health and Hospitals Corporation, which runs Bellevue, described third-world conditions, with no hot water, no lab or radiology services and pails of water hauled up the stairs to use for flushing toilets.

After pumping out 17 million gallons of water from the basement, the water is still two and a half feet deep in the cavernous basement where the fuel pumps apparently shorted out and became inoperable — unable to feed the 13th-floor backup generators, Mr. Aviles said.

Welcome to the 18th century.

Care to gavotte?

29 thoughts on “Life in New York after Hurricane Sandy

  1. Powerful and thought provoking. We really need to reevaluate priorities and figure out how to live in a world where is nature is (ultimately) more powerful than we are, even though we’ve done our best to control an d destroy nature.

    1. Thanks! It feels very unsettled and that feels scary.

      The gas lines are insane, and some people are behaving badly. Right now I am at a friend’s house (with wi fi and a dog to pat.) Jose is home tomorrow with a system that converts our cellphones to wi-fi spots and we will buy gas containers and a locking gas cap. The challenge is to NOT drive and conserve gas to avoid the mile long line-ups. Staying out of the road and woods is the way to avoid getting electrocuted by loose and downed power lines…we have power company people arriving from across the U.S. to help Con Ed get us back up to speed.

      1. Belongum

        I’ve been wondering how things have been for you Caitlin. Worrying actually – for all you mob hit by that storm up and down the north and south coasts. Thankfully you’ve got a thinking and experienced partner who did an amazing job being prepared it seems – well done that man! I hope you stay safe and well and that things begins to right themselves soon – as best they can. We feel pretty helpless over here in Oz – but we’re thinking of you fellas! We have this odd idea that technology and our ‘advanced’ society offers us a greater sense of security and with that – sadly – superiority. Mother nature just doesn’t care for any of that ‘silly-bugger-business’ at all… I just wish that her reminders of just how truly fragile we really are – weren’t so bloody devastating. Still – out of such things people sometimes learn to care for one another again – past the prejudices of status, colour, religion, money and power. I hope that – out of the bad times you’re having – you fellas will experience some good! Take care mate…

      2. Thanks so much for the kind words and concern. We now (at our apartment) have full power, thank heaven…some people are still in the cold and dark, which is especially terrifying for those who are old, poor, ill, isolated === which is **exactly** why the spectre of a Romney win makes me want to vomit. You cannot privatize compassion. Lots and lots of people are volunteering to help and millions of $$$$ have been donated.

        There are power trucks here with license plates from every possible state, helping us, which is very cool. The gas lineups are horrible but we now have trains and some subway. Jose brought home a MiFi device which allows me to work from anywhere with my own Internet access so I am all set. We are very fortunate to not have suffered any property or vehicle damage. Jose had covered five hurricanes and I have never experienced one, so it was very much his wisdom that helped us both. We were also extremely lucky to have been in hotels all week, he in NYC for work and me in Minneapolis, far away. I realized (oddly) that on 9/11 — our other disaster — I was also very far away, on a fellowship in Maryland. I seem to be lucky in this respect.

        The challenge will be preparing as best we can for next time. I doubt we would be allowed to keep a canister of gasoline in our garage as we live in a co-op (with 100 apartments and a lot of rules.) Maybe a few more lanterns and more candles. With heat, hot water and the ability to cook, it’s not that bad.

  2. crgardenjoe

    Glad your home is OK. And you’re right about the “new normal.” We haven’t enough at all in Cedar Rapids after devastating floods in 2008, and sometimes it seems to easy to forget that more extreme weather is the way we have to live from now on. We received another reminder this year in a long drought. It’s weird, but true–we have to be ready for both more water than in the past, and virtually none at all. Anyway, good luck, and I hope you can return to productive work soon.

    1. Thanks much! As long as I have steady, uninterrupted, fast access to wi-fi and a working telephone, I can keep going. I am very fortunate in that respect — i.e. I do not own a deli or restaurant or other damaged business.

  3. Nemesis

    Better the Gavotte than the Garrote… Meanwhile, back at Ms. Malled’s…

    [NoteToMsMalled: I’m so glad I kept my Tricorne… I’ve a hunch there will be many more impromptu CandleLit soirées ere the decade is out…]

  4. If anything, I think the last century was the anomaly and this isn’t the new normal – it’s how people have lived for most of recorded human history! The Industrial Age gave people a false sense of security, in my opinion.

    I really appreciated your points about how much we depend on other people and groups without realizing it. Having lived through several earthquakes and typhoons in a poor, poor part of the world where such things were considered regular, it always frightens and irritates me how such a large and wealthy country can prepare for inevitable disasters so poorly. My father (the boy scout) believed in 72 hour emergency packs, extra food in the house, and the ability to clean your own water if need be, and I’m grateful for his advice and example.

    But disasters always remind me (as you pointed out so perfectly!) how helpless we really are as a group. We rely on working roads to move, companies to provide our food, infrastructure to keep the lights on, etc. Take that all away and you’re dead right – we’re in the 18th century and most of us are in real danger of disease, starvation, and robber bands. It’s sobering.

    1. I heard a radio report of a woman in some NJ town with raw sewage backing up into their home…hello, cholera? diarrhea? All sorts of terrible shit (pun intended) happens when we lose even basic sanitation. It becomes a public health issue, not just an inconvenience.

      I think you and I and anyone who has lived in or traveled seriously through a developing/poor country has a much better and clearer idea what is involved when Hell happens. I was (terrifying!) in Venezuela in Dec. 1998 for the worst landslides in their history. I caught the last flight home to the US at 8 am and have never in my life been more relieved to flee. The highway was a brown lake, all six lanes of it. So I have seen some of this and felt the visceral fear of how bad it might get.

      What I fear more than anything is a nation — the U.S. — predicated on a loathing of government, where 45% of homes contain a firearm and a lot of people don’t give a shit about anyone else. That is a recipe for anarchy, I think.

  5. Pingback: Friday Links XL (It was the best of times, it was…etc.) « Small Dog Syndrome

  6. Thanks for sharing what it’s like for you over there at the moment. Here in Australia we get the news broadcasts but there’s nothing like hearing from someone who’s living it day in, day out. Your point about those who have electrical power being the powerful is really interesting; I’d not thought of that before.

    Here in Australia we’re quite familiar with natural disasters: floods, bushfires, wild storms. And I can’t help wondering if they are becoming more frequent, more unpredictable, and more severe. Is industrialisation and its by-products having an impact? How can it not?

    It may not be an entirely appropriate thing to say, but if anything I hope Sandy gets people to vote in the coming week and think about what’s really important. Then again, for many it seems, what’s important is making lights work again, having access to clean water, and being able to fill-up the car with fuel. All the best to you and yours and all the people around you.

    1. There is no doubt that the hurricane will affect the vote Nov. 6 — but one of the serious problems is that some people will not be able to reach the polls. The race is super-tight and it’s unlikely we’ll have a clear vote that is unchallenged as a result.

      We have power again (yay!), are watching BBC News, have all the lights on and are bloody relieved. But recovery is very uneven…we dropped off a pallet of bottled water to a local synagogue only 15 minutes south of us and, right now with the Marathon cancelled, many runners are instead (bless them) running up and down the stairs of affected apartment buildings to make sure inhabitants are OK. The timing of all this is quite eerie.

      I think this sort of event is going to become much more familiar and Jose and I are having some serious discussions about how (even better) we need to prepare for the next time.

      Thanks for the good wishes. It is lovely to have a friend so far away! 🙂

  7. heikoworld

    We don`t have the Sandy`s here in the UK but I know what they are like. I have worked in Television all my life (Retired Now) I have seen what Sandy`s have done in many parts of the world.
    I cannot comprehend what you are all going through, only by reading blogs do I get a sense of it especially in the area hit by this storm, I have worked in New York New Jersey, in fact all over the US North East and reading your stories here it is unnerving, hospitals evacuated, Electricity we take for granted but know when its not there and all the other everyday things.
    It`s good to read everyone is helping each other, would we survive it here in the UK, we have some terrible weather, mostly constant rain but nothing on the scale of Sandy.

    I am through this reply send all my good wishes to everyone as I know it is well talked about here in the UK, people are actually saying here, would we get through something like that, I think being British we would complain (A Lot) but we would have to cope, somehow.
    Mother nature is very kind but has a habit of throwing bad things our way which shows us we are vulnerable.
    My very Best Wishes to you.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s